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Numbers 5:31  (King James Version)

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Adam Clarke
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Numbers 5:31

This woman shall bear her iniquity - That is, her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot; see Numbers 5:22 (note). But if not guilty after such a trial, she had great honor, and, according to the rabbins, became strong, healthy, and fruitful; for if she was before barren, she now began to bear children; if before she had only daughters, she now began to have sons; if before she had hard travail, she now had easy; in a word, she was blessed in her body, her soul, and her substance: so shall it be done unto the holy and faithful woman, for such the Lord delighteth to honor; see I Timothy 2:15.

On the principal subject of this chapter. I shall here introduce a short account of the trial by ordeal, as practiced in different parts of the world, and which is supposed to have taken its origin from the waters of jealousy.

The trial by what was afterwards called Ordeal is certainly of very remote antiquity, and was evidently of Divine appointment. In this place we have an institution relative to a mode of trial precisely of that kind which among our ancestors was called ordeal; and from this all similar trials in Asia, Africa, and Europe, have very probably derived their origin.

Ordeal, Latin, ordalium , is, according to Verstegan, from the Saxon, ordal and ordel , and is derived by some from great, and Dael , judgment, signifying the greatest, most solemn, and decisive mode of judgment - Hickes. Others derive it from the Francic or Teutonic Urdela, which signifies simply to judge. But Lye, in his Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, derives the term from an Anglo-Saxon word, which is often in Anglo-Saxon, a privative particle, and, distinction or difference; and hence applied to that kind of judgment in which there was no respect of persons, but every one had absolute justice done him, as the decision of the business was supposed to belong to God alone. It always signified an appeal to the immediate interposition of God, and was therefore called Judicium Dei , God' s Judgment; and we may naturally suppose was never resorted to but in very important cases, where persons accused of great crimes protested their innocence, and there was no sufficient evidence by which they could be cleared from the accusation, or proved to be guilty of the crime laid to their charge. Such were the cases of jealousy referred to in this chapter.

The rabbins who have commented on this text give us the following information: When any man, prompted by the spirit of jealousy, suspected his wife to have committed adultery, he brought her first before the judges, and accused her of the crime; but as she asserted her innocency, and refused to acknowledge herself guilty, and as he had no witnesses to produce, he required that she should be sentenced to drink the waters of bitterness which the law had appointed; that God, by this means, might discover what she wished to conceal. After the judges had heard the accusation and the denial, the man and his wife were both sent to Jerusalem, to appear before the Sanhedrin, who were the sole judges in such matters. The rabbins say that the judges of the Sanhedrin, at first endeavored with threatenings to confound the woman, and cause her to confess her crime; when she still persisted in her innocence, she was led to the eastern gate of the court of Israel, where she was stripped of the clothes she wore, and dressed in black before a number of persons of her own sex. The priest then told her that if she knew herself to be innocent she had no evil to apprehend; but if she were guilty, she might expect to suffer all that the law threatened: to which she answered, Amen, amen.

The priest then wrote the words of the law upon a piece of vellum, with ink that had no vitriol in it, that it might be the more easily blotted out. The words written on the vellum were, according to the rabbins, the following: -

"If a strange man have not come near thee, and thou art not polluted by forsaking the bed of thy husband, these bitter waters which I have cursed will not hurt thee: but if thou have gone astray from thy husband, and have polluted thyself by coming near to another man, may thou be accursed of the Lord, and become an example for all his people; may thy thigh rot, and thy belly swell till it burst! may these cursed waters enter into thy belly, and, being swelled therewith, may thy thigh putrefy!"

After this the priest took a new pitcher, filled it with water out of the brazen bason that was near the altar of burnt-offering, cast some dust into it taken from the pavement of the temple, mingled something bitter, as wormwood, with it, and having read the curses above mentioned to the woman, and received her answer of Amen, he scraped off the curses from the vellum into the pitcher of water. During this time another priest tore her clothes as low as her bosom, made her head bare, untied the tresses of her hair, fastened her torn clothes with a girdle below her breasts, and presented her with the tenth part of an ephah, or about three pints of barley-meal, which was in a frying pan, without oil or incense.

The other priest, who had prepared the waters of jealousy, then gave them to be drank by the accused person, and as soon as she had swallowed them, he put the pan with the meal in it into her hand. This was waved before the Lord, and a part of it thrown into the fire of the altar. If the woman was innocent, she returned with her husband; and the waters, instead of incommoding her, made her more healthy and fruitful than ever: if on the contrary she were guilty, she was seen immediately to grow pale, her eyes started out of her head, and, lest the temple should be defiled with her death, she was carried out, and died instantly with all the ignominious circumstances related in the curses, which the rabbins say had the same effect on him with whom she had been criminal, though he were absent and at a distance. They add, however, that if the husband himself had been guilty with another woman, then the waters had no bad effect even on his criminal wife; as in that case the transgression on the one part was, in a certain sense, balanced by the transgression on the other.

There is no instance in the Scriptures of this kind of ordeal having ever been resorted to; and probably it never was during the purer times of the Hebrew republic. God had rendered himself so terrible by his judgments, that no person would dare to appeal to this mode of trial who was conscious of her guilt; and in case of simple adultery, where the matter was either detected or confessed, the parties were ordered by the law to be put to death.

But other ancient nations have also had their trials by ordeal.

We learn from Ferdusi, a Persian poet, whose authority we have no reason to suspect, that the fire ordeal was in use at a very early period among the ancient Persians. In the famous epic poem called the Shah Nameh of this author, who is not improperly styled the Homer of Persia, under the title Dastan Seeavesh ve Soodabeh , The account of Seeavesh and Soodabeh, he gives a very remarkable and circumstantial account of a trial of this kind.

It is very probable that the fire ordeal originated among the ancient Persians, for by them fire was not only held sacred, but considered as a god, or rather as the visible emblem of the supreme Deity; and indeed this kind of trial continues in extensive use among the Hindoos to the present day. In the code of Gentoo laws it is several times referred to under the title of Purrah Reh , but in the Shah Nameh, the word Soogend is used, which signifies literally an oath, as the persons were obliged to declare their innocence by an oath, and then put their veracity to test by passing through the kohi atesh , or fire pile; see the Shah Nameh in the title Dastan Seeavesh ve Soodabeh , and Halhed' s code of Gentoo laws; Preliminary Discourse, p. lviii., and chap. v., sec. iii., pp. 117, etc.

A circumstantial account of the different kinds of ordeal practiced among the Hindoos, communicated by Warren Hastings, Esq., who received it from Ali Ibrahim Khan, chief magistrate at Benares, may be found in the Asiatic Researches, vol. i., p. 389.

This trial was conducted among this people nine different ways: first, by the balance; secondly, by fire; thirdly, by water; fourthly, by poison; fifthly, by the cosha, or water in which an idol has been washed; sixthly, by rice; seventhly, by boiling oil; eighthly, by red hot iron; ninthly, by images.

There is, perhaps, no mode of judiciary decision that has been in more common use in ancient times, than that of ordeal, in some form or other. We find that it was also used by the ancient Greeks 500 years before the Christian era; for in the Antigone of Sophocles, a person suspected by Creon of a misdemeanor, declares himself ready "to handle hot iron, and to walk over fire," in proof of his innocence, which the scholiast tells us was then a very usual purgation.

' ̔ ,

, ̔ .

Ver. 270.

The scholiast on this line informs us that the custom in binding themselves by the most solemn oath, was this: they took red hot iron in their hands, and throwing it into the sea, swore that the oath should be inviolate till that iron made its appearance again. Virgil informs us that the priests of Apollo at Soracte were accustomed to walk over burning coals unhurt.

- Et medium, freti pietate, per ignem

Cultores multa premimus vestigia pruna .

Aen. xi. 787.

Grotius gives many instances of water ordeal in Bithynia, Sardinia, and other places. Different species of fire and water ordeal are said to have prevailed among the Indians on the coast of Malabar; the negroes of Loango, Mozambique, etc., etc., and the Calmuc Tartars.

The first formal mention I find of this trial in Europe is in the laws of King Ina, composed about a. d. 700. See L. 77. entitled, Decision by hot iron and water. I find it also mentioned in the council of Mentz, a. d. 847; but Agobard, archbishop of Lyons, wrote against it sixty years before this time. It is afterwards mentioned in the council of Trevers, a. d. 895. It did not exist in Normandy till after the Conquest, and was probably first introduced into England in the time of Ina, in whose laws and those of Athelstan and Ethelred, it was afterwards inserted. The ordeal by fire was for noblemen and women, and such as were free born: the water ordeal was for husbandmen, and the meaner classes of the people, and was of two sorts; by cold water and by hot. See the proceedings in these trials declared particularly in the law of King Ina; Wilkins, Leges Anglo-Saxonae, p. 27.

Several popes published edicts against this species of trial. Henry III. abolished trials by ordeal in the third year of his reign, 1219. See the act in Rymer, vol. i., p. 228; and see Dugdale' s Origines Juridicales, fol. 87; Spelman' s Glossary, Wilkins, Hickes, Lombard, Somner, and Du Cange, art. Ferrum.

The ordeal or trial by battle or combat is supposed to have come to us from the Lombards, who, leaving Scandinavia, overran Europe: it is thought that this mode of trial was instituted by Frotha III., king of Denmark, about the time of the birth of Christ; for he ordained that every controversy should be determined by the sword. It continued in Holsatia till the time of Christian III., king of Denmark, who began his reign in 1535. From these northern nations the practice of duels was introduced into Great Britain. I need scarcely add, that this detestable form of trial was the foundation of the no less detestable crime of dueling, which so much disgraces our age and nation, a practice that is defended only by ignorance, false honor, and injustice: it is a relic of barbarous superstition, and was absolutely unknown to those brave and generous nations, the Greeks and Romans, whom it is so much the fashion to admire; and who, in this particular, so well merit our admiration!

The general practice of dueling is supposed to have taken its rise in 1527, at the breaking up of a treaty between the Emperor Charles V. and Francis I. The former having sent a herald with an insulting message to Francis, the king of France sent back the herald with a cartel of defiance, in which he gave the emperor the lie, and challenged him to single combat: Charles accepted it; but after several messages concerning the arrangement of all the circumstances relative to the combat, the thoughts of it were entirely laid aside. The example of two personages so illustrious drew such general attention, and carried with it so much authority, that it had considerable influence in introducing an important change in manners all over Europe. It was so much the custom in the middle ages of Christianity to respect the cross, even to superstition, that it would have been indeed wonderful if the same ignorant bigotry had not converted it into an ordeal: accordingly we find it used for this purpose in so many different ways as almost to preclude description. Another trial of this kind was the Corsned, or the consecrated bread and cheese: this was the ordeal to which the clergy commonly appealed when they were accused of any crime. A few concluding observations from Dr. Henry may not be unacceptable to the reader: - "If we suppose that few or none escaped conviction who exposed themselves to these fiery trials, we shall be very much mistaken. For the histories of those times contain innumerable examples of persons plunging their naked arms into boiling water, handling red hot balls of iron, and walking upon burning ploughshares, without receiving the least injury. Many learned men have been much puzzled to account for this, and disposed to think that Providence graciously interposed in a miraculous manner for the preservation of injured innocence.

"But if we examine every circumstance of these fiery ordeals with due attention, we shall see sufficient reason to suspect that the whole was a gross imposition on the credulity of mankind. The accused person was committed wholly to the priest who was to perform the ceremony three days before the trial, in which he had time enough to bargain with him for his deliverance, and give him instructions how to act his part. On the day of trial no person was permitted to enter the church but the priest and the accused till after the iron was heated, when twelve friends of the accuser, and twelve of the accused, and no more, were admitted and ranged along the wall on each side of the church, at a respectful distance. After the iron was taken out of the fire several prayers were said: the accused drank a cup of holy water, and sprinkled his hand with it, which might take a considerable time if the priest were indulgent. The space of nine feet was measured by the accused himself, with his own feet, and he would probably give but scanty measure. He was obliged only to touch one of the marks with the toe of his right foot, and allowed to stretch the other foot as far towards the other mark as he could, so that the conveyance was almost instantaneous. His hand was not immediately examined, but wrapped in a cloth prepared for that purpose three days. May we not then, from all these precautions, suspect that these priests were in possession of some secret that secured the hand from the impression of such a momentary touch of hot iron, or removed all appearances of these impressions in three days; and that they made use of this secret when they saw reason? Such readers as are curious in matters of this kind may find two different directions for making ointments that will have this effect, in the work here quoted. What greatly strengthens these suspicions is, that we meet with no example of any champion of the Church who suffered the least injury from the touch of hot iron in this ordeal: but where any one was so fool-hardy as to appeal to it, or to that of hot water, with a view to deprive the Church of any of her possessions, he never failed to burn his fingers, and lose his cause." I have made the scanty extract above from a very extensive history of the trial by ordeal, which I wrote several years ago, but never published. All the forms of adjuration for the various ordeals of hot water, cold water, red hot iron, bread and cheese, etc., may be seen in the Codex Legum Antiquarum , Lindenbrogii, fol. Franc. 1613, p. 1299, etc.

Other Adam Clarke entries containing Numbers 5:31:

Numbers 5:17
Numbers 5:29


<< Numbers 5:30   Numbers 6:1 >>

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